A Firstborn’s Thoughts on Being Remembered

I was born in the Emerald City, a sparkling harbour jewel on the eastern edge of the wide brown land of Oz. It had been an unseasonally wet summer, full of drooping humidity and cicada song, and the day I was due to make my way into this world came and went, sweeping past like a sudden southerly squall. For two full weeks the rain fell, until — finally — a day dawned, full of light and promise, and the clouds disappeared. And so it was, in the golden light of late afternoon on that first fine day for a fortnight, that I was born.

first born

Firstborn problems…

Ah…there’s nothing like a bit of fullblown firstborn child mythologising, is there?

I mean, it’s all true — all that stuff I wrote up top, however much I might have embroidered it.

But it’s also true, as any firstborn will know but will be equally unlikely to admit, there’s nothing quite like knowing that (for better or worse) the moment of your birth changed your parents’ lives forever. It sets you apart. It marks you as different from your siblings, whether you are followed by one or an entire busload of other children.

Being the firstborn makes you special.

There…I said it.

QE2

Seriously, we firstborns barely flinch…

However, as most firstborns will tell you, this ain’t necessarily a good thing. It’s a bit like being the Queen of England (no, seriously…bear with me here, and not just because the Queen has obviously been far more affected by birth order than most).

Firstborns are expected to be responsible. To show leadership. To set a good example — or, failing that, to have every misdemeanour bookmarked forever after as a reference point of what not to do. And all of this happens, like Her Majesty, just because you were born.

Like the Queen, some of us appear to shoulder the burden lightly. In fact, you’d hardly know we were eldest children unless you asked. We barely flinch when reminded of certain (glaringly obvious) historical inconsistencies between curfew times, basic standards of acceptable dress, and the general application of rules. We don’t bat an eye when our younger siblings get away with doing things we would have been instantly grounded for and saying stuff we always wish we could have. We remain unfazed by the age old and as yet unresolved conflict regarding whether it is the person on the dealer’s left or the youngest player who goes first.

birthday

Firstborn means you’re always older…meh…

And yet, there can come a day — which, for me, came only yesterday — when you wonder whether the simple fact of being firstborn is sufficient. When you question whether being the child whose birth, years before, changed your parents’ lives will prompt them to remember you on your birthday.

What? I usually prefer to let this ridiculous birthday stuff slide straight under the radar…I’m a firstborn, and that means that the oldest child is always, well…older…

Being the responsible, rule following, respectful firstborn that I am, I spent part of my birthday yesterday beside my mother’s hospital bed, where she was recovering from back surgery.

No, I don’t need a medal. Really — I’m a firstborn; we do this stuff all the time.

hippo birdy

Hippo Birdie Two Ewe, in full.

What I did need, was for my Dad, The Professor, who has dementia, to remember that it was the anniversary of the day his firstborn child came into the world.

And you know what? He did. Not that actually wished me, “Happy Birthday,” mind. Rather more amusingly, and in keeping with long-standing family tradition, he quoted Sandra Boynton and said, “Hippo Birdie Two Ewes”.

And so it was that on another hot, humid day in the Emerald City, which remains the most glittering of jewels on the edge of the wide brown land of Oz, this firstborn was remembered.

And it really was special.

 

 

 

January Days

Janus

Janus, the God of beginnings, gates, transitions, time, duality, doorways, passages, and endings. Because that’s enough for one deity’s To Do List.

I love January.

It’s a time of sultry mid-summer Sydney days, blue skies and sea breezes. A time of fresh starts and new beginnings, reflections and resolutions. It’s by far the best and longest of the school holidays. It’s the month I was born in.

Like Janus, the Roman God from whom the month takes its name, I feel strangely two-faced in January. One part of me kicks off the new year with plans and focused precision, tackling tasks I wouldn’t have time to otherwise and ticking boxes beside long overdue items on my To Do List. This part of me cleans, declutters, sorts, organises and schedules like nobody’s business, but then…

…then, the other part of me kicks back.  This part of me takes full advantage of the sun-drenched days and long golden evenings by soaking up the sunshine with a good book in one hand and a cool drink in the other, by wandering the well-trodden path the the beach to restore my soul as only saltwater can, or simply by curling up somewhere comfortable and daydreaming, pondering and wondering.

Warrior 2

One hand in the past, the other in the future, the self in the present…finding Sthira and Sukha within.

My recurrent January duality reminds me somehow of the yoga teaching that comes from the Sutra of Patanjali: that we should balance sthira (strength and steadiness) with sukha (ease — or, as it literally translates from Sansrkit, “good place”). On a yoga mat, you know without any doubt when you’re there, or even when you’re getting close to finding that good place.

And so, in my times of pondering and wondering recently, I have come to consider the possibility that the purpose of January Days is to remind us of that balance, of the need to find sthira and sukha in every part of life, of the opportunity to kick off and kick back throughout the year, of the chance to be peaceful warriors each day.

I’m going to find that good place, and to keep looking for it even when it seems as far away as a summer’s day does in midwinter.

This year, I wish you strength and ease.

 

 

 

Night Moves

NIGHT -Cahill_expressway_loop

Upwards to the The Bridge…

Saturday, 10:08pm

I’m driving home through the city at night.  One of my dearest friends is riding in the car beside me, and we’re basking in the afterglow of an evening of revellery: good food, even better wine, a classical music concert with a brilliant soloist.  Crossing over Circular Quay, we get the giggles, cracking each other up with increasingly ridiculous remarks about the man we’ve just seen perform.

He’s a violin virtuoso, he sings like an veritable angel, he has such shiny hair he should be in a L’Oreal commercial…no doubt he is the world’s greatest lover, too…

We make the long loop up onto the Harbour Bridge, our laughter sprialling skywards through the arching steel and up into the night.

Monday, 5:45pm

There’s a dance off happening in the kitchen.

In this house we celebrate good news by busting out moves, and today we’ve had plenty. Ugg-booted and stocking-footed we rollick around the room, each of us attempting to outdo the others with displays of increasingly questionable choreography, while outside in the gathering darkness the real stars appear.

Tuesday, 6:13pm

Tonight I’m dealing with Arsenic hour — the fraught and fractious time of day when you’re wondering whether you might poison your kids or yourself — when mid-meltdown from Miss Malaprop I get a text from The Bloke asking whether he can catch up with the Other Blokes for a beer or three.  I flick back a quick, “If you want”, resisting the urge to scream obscentities or engage in a vicious game of compare and contrast.

There is no point in declaring marital war over the differences between our Tuesday evenings.

Wednesday, 3:36am

The Bloke and I are at the top of a ruined high rise, and he is about to be hauled through a dilapidated door behind him to face a firing squad.  I can hear bullets spraying, drilling into the the other side of the wall, and he’s pleading with me to leave, telling me everything will be OK (which it clearly won’t be) as I get progressively more agitated and distraught.

In desperation I wake up, wrenching myself from the drama of the dream into the quiet of the night, and draw enormous comfort from the sound of the The Bloke’s breathing, deep and even, beside me in the dark.

Thursday, 5:40am

The flying foxes are at it again.

Those manic marsupials were squawking and carrying on as I drifted off to sleep, and now their raucous predawn party in the top of the tree next door has me wide awake.

I get up and stalk down the long hallway of my house, surefooted and keeneyed as a cat. They say the darkest part of night is just before the dawn, but this is my territory and I have no need for light in the place I call home.

A large part of me is nocturnal, too.

Operation Hoik: A Farewell to Stuff

We’ve been getting rid of a lot of Stuff, lately.

So much Stuff, in fact, that it requires a capital letter to write about it — and explains, in part, my hiatus from writing this blog.

I’d love to tell you that my latest purge was inspired by something grand like re-reading Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, but no…lately I’ve been feeling like we have too much clutter in our home, that we are struggling to keep our house in order.

As any introvert could tell you (if they were actually speaking to other human beings that day), the thought of escaping to the woods near Walden Pond to live in silence and solitude definitely has its appeal.  But in this era of massive population growth and urban sprawl, it’s hard to find anywhere that could be described as silent or solitary…except Antarctica, maybe…and the climate there is not quite as hospitable as it is here in Sydney…

That said, Thoreau’s words have been rattling around in my head a lot lately:

thoreau-1

Not so much the bits about fronting the essential facts of life and learning what it had to teach, because having kids around gets you to do those things on a daily basis (and without needing to retreat to an isolated cabin and risk being mistaken for the next Unabomber).

No, the bit that has been reverberating in my brain has been I wished to live deliberately.

Because I do want that. And I want my children to understand what it means, too.

thoreau-3

The Bloke and I have been talking a lot lately about how basic items of food are starting to cost more than other…Stuff. (Yep, there’s that word again.) It seems it’s becoming cheaper to buy a bunch of kitchen gadgets or a pile of kids’ clothes than it is to get groceries. And it feels like we’re being encouraged to buy things — any things — faster than we can say “credit card debt”.

Inadvertently, and more than a little haphazardly, as the…ahem…shall we say “eventful” year that was 2016 rolled slowly but surely into 2017, I found myself borrowing a copy of Marie Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (though, to be truthful, I dipped in and out of that one) and being drawn into watching movies like Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things. As January approached, it felt like there was something about the transition from one year to the next that required me to take a different approach this time around, particularly in the lead-up to Inauguration Day in the US, when I strenously avoided any kind of news coverage — despite the fact that American politics has little impact on me personally.

Except that maybe American politics do impact on me, and on my family, despite the fact that we are living quietly here in the Antipodes…not least because I suspect that the election of Donald Trump, along with Brexit and any number of other things that reared their heads last year, has thrown into sharp relief the differences between the haves and the have-nots across the globe. Obviously, the situation (both internationally and domestically) is far more complicated than that — and even to describe the dichotomy in such terms is, at best, reductive and, at worst, risks deliberately misunderstanding the precursory events of the past decades.

But, that said, I can’t ignore the overriding sense I have in response to all of this political…Stuff …that something has to be done, and done differently. And the following words from Juliet Schor (who I first saw on the Minimalism movie) probably go further than most to summing up my current feeling about the state of the planet:

I agree that justice requires a vastly more equal society, in terms of income and wealth. The question is whether we should also aim for a society in which our relationship to consuming changes, a society in which we consume differently.

So that’s what we’ve been doing: consuming differently.

As a family, we’ve been discarding and donating, clearing and cleaning, reusing and recycling, simplifying and stripping back, and — perhaps, most importantly — letting go. All four of us have been part of Operation Hoik, our plan to get ourselves and our home back on track and living more mindfully and meaningfully.

thoreau-2The Stuff in our lives is disappearing and, in its place, we’ve found the space to discuss what we really need, what we really want out of life. We’re making deliberate choices, and have snapped out of the trap of mindless consumerism.

It’s not going to fix the geopolitical problems of our age, change who is governing a foreign country, or stop a war.

But attempting to live deliberately does invite us to be more thoughtful, more considered, and — hopefully — more compassionate. And I think that I, and my family, and possibly the whole world, could do with a whole lot more of that in 2017.

And with that in mind, even though it is belatedly, I wish you a truly Happy New Year.

BJx

 

Sunrise

As you may have heard, Sydney was lashed by storms over the weekend. An East Coast Low brought torrential rain and fierce winds to our part of the world, along with king tides the likes of which we haven’t seen for many long years. Our little house survived unscathed, but only a few minutes’ drive away other dwellings weren’t nearly so fortunate: many near the lakes and lagoons were flooded; others along the beachfront were partially destroyed.

Today, however, the blue sky is striving to make a comeback, the sun is struggling through, and I’ve got some jazz happening on the stereo to blast away the remnants of what has been a very wet weekend. More specifically, I’m listening to one of the greatest jazz vocalists alive today: Kurt Elling.

Last Friday night, just before the downpour began, The Bloke and I were lucky enough to catch Kurt Elling in concert at City Recital Hall in Angel Place. I’ll be honest — I’m an unabashed Elling fan, and it was a bit of a dream come true to see him sing live.

Kurt

Kurt Elling…letting it fly.

And man, can he sing.

I don’t think I wiped the grin off my face from the moment he appeared on stage, singing his take on Joe Jackson’s “Steppin’ Out”, right through to his “Embraceable You” encore. And there were many moments along the way that made me nearly hold me breath, not wanting them to end — as a vocalist, the guy has some serious skills.

But one of the most interesting things about the night was the way Elling engages with his repertoire, reinventing pieces by imposing his own stamp on them — not only via the vocalese for which he is justly famous, but also by inserting his own lyrics into wellknown songs and turning them into something truly unique. Take Elling’s version of Duke Ellington’s “I Like the Sunrise”, for example, where he juxtaposes the original lyrics with ones of his own creation, inspired by the great Persian poet Jalal ad-Din Rumi. It’s creative. It’s clever. And it’s truly captivating.

And so, as storm-damaged Sydney cleans up after a wild weekend, here it is: sunrise, delivered by velvet-voiced virtuoso who really, really knows how to perform.

 

Breathe…

T spoon

Just one spoonful…every now and then. You can get a spoon just like this on Esty, here.

I just put a spoonful of sugar into my tea (Earl Grey, black, piping hot).

That might seem like a very ordinary thing to do, but some time ago I banished sugar to the top shelf of my pantry. Nowadays, the sugar jar only really makes an appearance when my Dad comes over (English Breakfast, white with one).

But there are some days — and quite often, for me, they are grey-skied, quiet days — when I prefer to take my tea with a spoonful of sugar. These are the days when I feel the need for that gentle buzz only sugar brings. (And yes, you really do notice it once you’ve gone without it for some time).

If I’m honest, however, it’s not the weather that made me pick up the sugar jar, even though autumn is descending rapidly upon Sydneytown at this time of year. And it’s not the solace of stirring, either, which I’ve written about before.

No, it’s my kids.

Lord knows I love them — dearly, oh so dearly — but by the end of the school term, my kids are driving me crazy. Bonkers. Mad as a box of frogs.

After ten long weeks of school, my children’s behaviour…ummm…deteriorates.

That’s the nicest word I can find to describe the out of control crazytrain ride that confronts me before drop off and after pick up every day at the end of term. I don’t think it’s deliberate or in any way malicious: I suspect my girls are really, truly worn out and that self-regulation is, quite simply, beyond them when they have to front up for six hours each day of being ever-so-good for their teachers.

And, having picked up all the signals that the crazytrain was careening towards me this week (the least of which were tears and tantrums), I have taken steps to look after my own sanity and have managed to keep it — mostly — together. It just so happens that today, one of those steps involved stirring sugar into my tea. But yesterday, for example, I made sure I got to yoga.

T so ham

So…ham…in…out…just…breathe…

My yoga teacher is like a lovely little gypsy fairy (seriously, you can almost see her wings sparkling silvery bluey-green) with a beaming smile that is as warm and open as her beautiful heart. And yesterday, bless her, she introduced our class to a very simple mantra that has helped remind me to take a couple of deep, life-saving and sanity-preserving breaths whenever the kid-filled crazytrain has looked like it was about to derail.

The mantra: SO HAM.

It’s pronounced more like so hum, which resembles the sound of inhaling and exhaling, and allows you to connect the mantra to your breathing.

But what has really helped me this week is what so ham means: the mantra translates, very simply, as I am that. So when you connect the mantra to your breath, and repeat it over and over again, you connect also to the core of your being:

I am that I am that I am that I am that I am that I am that I am that I am…

 And I came to realise, in those moments of stillness, when I connected to myself and my breath, that even though I am a mother and a wife and a daughter and a sister and an aunt and a friend and a freelance writer and a carer and homemaker who cleans and washes and irons and makes lunches and all manner of other meals and snacks and everything else —

T peace— that really, at the centre of it all, I just am.

And no one can take that away.

So hamso ham…so ham…

 

 

 

Because it matters…

Audra McDonald: Build a Bridge

Audra McDonald: Build a Bridge

Last weekend I had the inestimable privilege of hearing Audra McDonald sing with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Performing the final concert of a lengthy tour, she lit up the Sydney Opera House stage, singing celebrated Broadway tunes and other, lesser-known numbers: everything from George Gershwin’s Summertime to Kate Miller-Heidke’s Facebook Song.

At the end of the show, the vast majority of audience members rose to their feet and gave McDonald the standing ovation she richly deserved. And she rewarded us with not one, but two encores, the second being Somewhere Over The Rainbow, which she prefaced by explaining that she is a passionate advocate of equality — and particularly of Marriage Equality.

And that’s when it hit me: that Sydney, the city I live in and the city I love, is one of the few places Audra McDonald would have visited on her extensive tour where Marriage Equality does not exist.

And it bugged me. It rankled.

Now, as anyone who follows the Blue Jai Blog with any regularity will tell you, when something bothers me this is where I come to make sense of it. And they would also tell you that I’m not usually one to use this blog to talk about anything particularly controversial (like politics or religion, for example), and there’s a good reason for that: what you believe is your business, and what I believe is mine. It’s that simple — really.

To be clear, the lack of Marriage Equality in Australia is not something I am directly affected by: I’m a heterosexual female who is married to a heterosexual male. We had lived together for years before we tied the knot, we owned real property together, we even had joint custody of a cat (a British Blue; thanks for asking, catlovers). For various reasons — most of which revolve around me being far too stubborn and sassy for my own good — it took The Bloke and me the better part of a decade to set up a joint bank account (you know, a regular transaction account that allows you both to see exactly where the money is being spent, right down to the last bookshop and cafe dollar), but we got there in the end.

But here’s the thing: in days past — probably more recently than we’d like to admit — cohabitation prior to marriage was frowned upon. Female ownership of property was unlawful. With the exception of caring for a small furry domestic animal, pretty much all that The Bloke and I did prior to getting married was, at one point or another, either socially unacceptable or legally prohibited. And while my inner cynic may suspect that Ann Patchett was onto something when she observed that opening a joint bank account is “a moment of trust and commitment the likes of which most wedding vows couldn’t touch”, the fact remains that nearly ten years ago, The Bloke and I were able to stand up in front of our family and friends and make a public promise to love each other and to try to do the right thing by each other for the rest of our lives.

We got married. And it mattered.

Discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identification? To me, it just doesn't add up...

Discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identification? To me, it just doesn’t add up…

Now, I’m not about to wade into the troubled waters that swirl around the various arguments for or against Marriage Equality, because I don’t find political wrangling or religious rhetoric particularly appealing. (Ever.)

But what I will share are my musings about why I suspect achieving Marriage Equality in Australia would be a good thing — not specifically for me (an already married mother of two), but for our society.

First of all, I want to live in a society that does not discriminate on the basis of sex, gender, race, religion, political persuasion, eye colour or even the length of your armpit hair (let alone whether you choose to wax it, shave it, or dye it green). I believe we all have a right to live in such a society, and to participate in the democratic processes that protect that right.

Thinking

Yes, yes — I know we’re not discussing war or the end of the world, but in my opinion the Twelfth Doctor makes a powerful argument for social evolution: “Thinking…it’s just a fancy word for changing your mind”.

I want to live in a society that is evolutionary, that adapts and responds to change instead of saying, “but we’ve always done it this way”. Social evolution has enabled me, a woman, to own property. To vote. To receive (supposedly) equal pay for equal work. As Charles Darwin said, “It’s not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one that is most responsive to change.” And, to my mind, Marriage Equality is not the only issue challenging our society to adapt — combating global warming, closing the wealth gap, ending family violence would all go on that list too. But our responses need to reflect our society as it is today. Why? Well, as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said recently: “Because it’s 2015”.

I want to live in a society where, if either one of my children comes home one day and says, “I’ve met the most incredible human being, and I love them and want to spend the rest of my life with them — I want to marry them,” they can do so. Legally. No matter who the other person is.

Love is precious. Love is valuable. Love is magnificent, it is mighty, it is miraculous. Love transcends sex and gender, politics and religion, culture and race, and it’s definitely got it all over joint bank accounts.

So if two people — any two people — love each other so much that they are prepared to stand up, publicly, and make a lifelong commitment to each other? Well, after all these musings, I know I’d like to live in a society where they can get married.

Not just because it’s 2015.

Because it matters.